Haitians - Orientation

Identification. The Republic of Haiti is the second-oldest independent nation in the Western Hemisphere, and it is the only one with a French-Creole background and an overwhelmingly African culture. Large communities of Haitians exist outside Haiti, especially in the Dominican Republic, on other Caribbean islands, in Central America and northern South America, and in North America. The second-largest Haitian community, after Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital, is in New York City, with about 500,000 members.

Location. Occupying 27,750 square kilometers on the western third of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, which it shares with the Dominican Republic, Haiti lies between 18° and 20° N and 72° and 74° W. It is 90 kilometers southeast of Cuba, 187 kilometers northeast of Jamaica, and about 1,000 kilometers from Florida. Its topography ranges from flat, semiarid valleys to densely forested mountains; about one-third of its area lies 200 to 500 meters above sea level, and the remaining two-thirds is covered by three mountain ranges. The highest point of elevation is La Selle Peak (2,680 meters). The mean temperature is somewhere between 24° C and 27° C; averages for the hottest and coolest months differ by perhaps 5° C, although temperature variations on any given day may be as great as 12° C. Temperature decreases three-quarters of a degree per 100 meters of elevation. Port-au-Prince, with an elevation of 40 meters, has a mean temperature of 26.3° C, but Pétionville, at 400 meters, records 24.7° C, and Kenscoff, at 1,450 meters, enjoys 18.5° C.

Demography. Demographic information is at once scarce and unreliable. According to educated estimates, the total population of Haiti is about 6.5 million. Port-au-Prince has a population of about 740,000, and the second-largest city, Cap Haïtien, has about 70,000 inhabitants. Regional cities that can boast populations of 10,000 to 50,000 are Les Cayes, Gonaïves, Port-de-Paix, Jacmel, Jérémie, Saint Marc, and Hinche. The single recent census for which information is generally available was conducted only in urban centers in 1971; a 10 percent sample survey was used to estimate the population in rural areas. The total population calculated from that census was 4,314,628, 79.6 percent of it rural.

Linguistic Affiliation. The language spoken by all Haitians is usually referred to as Haitian Creole. For most of modern history, however, the official language of government, business, and education has been French. At best, only about 8 percent of the population, the educated elite, speaks French well—and then only as a second language. Another 2 to 7 percent uses French with a lesser degree of competence. Traditionally, the elite has used the requirement of fluency in French to exclude the general population from competing for positions in government and business. Haitian Creole, which has often been seen as a nonlanguage in which sophisticated thoughts cannot be expressed or, at best, as a poor imitation of French, is coming into its own, and the prestige of French is rapidly declining in Haiti. In the early 1990s both Creole and French were the country's official languages.

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